Aconcagua is the second highest of the Seven Summits, and at 22,838ft it is a formidable peak. Even if you choose the easiest way up the mountain, you are looking at a one way trip of ~35km / 22 miles with 4000 meters (13,120ft) of ascent. The typical climber takes about two weeks to get to the summit, allowing time to both acclimatize and to wait for the somewhat elusive weather window.
OK - if you do the math it doesn't sound that bad, does it? Two weeks for 22 miles and 13,000 feet elevation gain should translate to an average of just a little under 2 miles and 1,000ft of ascent each day. Of course it's not that easy: there are acclimatization days and load carries which mean that, once above basecamp, you essentially have to climb every bit up to high camp at least twice. And most of the action happens above 14,000ft ASL where the air is thin and every step is a battle.
So how do you prepare for a climb like this? Here's what AWE founder Sunny Stroeer has to say to Aconcagua hopefuls:
‘The better your cardio base is, the better your chances of acclimatizing and making it all the way to the summit. A huge part of the battle is mental, but you have to be working off an incredibly strong cardio base to even be in position to fight that mental battle. What I mean by that: being in marathon shape is a great benchmark; short of actually running a marathon, you ought to be able to knock out a twenty mile run/walk over the course of 5-7 hours without feeling like you’ve got nothing left in the tank at the end of it.’
One of the biggest challenges on Aconcagua is both the duration of the climb and the lack of opportunities to truly recovery. Even the approach to basecamp isn’t a walk in the park - the longest approach day on the normal route is a 12 mile hike with significant vertical gain right towards the end of the day - but it’s still quite manageable for most fit hikers. Once above basecamp, though, every day is difficult; rest days lack the creature comforts of basecamp. And as if that’s not enough, a string of difficult days is then capped off by what may just be one of the hardest physical efforts you’ve ever undertaken: summit day.
That’s why, in addition to an excellent cardio base, the ability to suffer is key. Climbing at altitude and in the extreme cold that characterizes Aconcagua means that there will be plenty of suffering, even under the most favorable conditions; the outcome of the climb depends majorly both on your physical preparation and on how badly you want it (while respecting physical limits and objective hazards, of course).
If you are not already an ultra endurance athlete with a first-hand idea of what this suffering talk is all about, here’s a good way to get a first-hand taste: overnight training sessions. Start at dusk and hike all night until the sun comes up again; ideally up a local hill or mountain, and carrying weight. When a 12 hour overnight hike doesn't faze you anymore, chances are you'd handle the physical demands of Aconcagua just fine.
You are still reading and all of this sounds appealing rather than exhausting? Maybe you should come climbing with us.